In January 2018, Ullet Road Church Rebels were formed in Liverpool. The Rebels are the first club to field an 11-a-side football team in league competition exclusively consisting of refugees and young men in the UK asylum system.
As club secretary, I have kept a diary that tells the story of the Rebels and its players: the development of the team, their progress and setbacks on the pitch, and the personal struggles that some of the players have negotiating the hostile environment of the UK asylum system.
This is the first in a 13-part series of instalments from that diary. It tells the story of the formation of the Rebels.
Chris: “Do you fancy starting a refugee football team?”
Rev. Phil: “Yes.”
Rev. Phil: “Of course, yes. I’ve always wanted a church football team.”
Chris: “And I want to start a refugee football team.”
Phil: “We’re made for each other, then. Let’s get going. What are the next steps?”
In the 18th and 19th century, Northern cities were full of slums. People lived in overcrowded squalor and, often, the best way to deal with it was through alcohol. Initially, the privileged classes knew and understood little about urban squalor. Then, Karl Marx’s sidekick, Frederick Engels, published The Condition of the Working Class in England.
This was the 1880s: a time when a series of reports on urban poverty were produced by the likes of Charles Booth and Seebohm Rowntree. Their reports led to huge philanthropic efforts to tackle urban poverty in the 1880s onwards. Classic examples would be William Lever’s Port Sunlight, a Garden Suburb with green recreational spaces so that people could keep fit and healthy.
However, there was a group of people that had always been active in the slums; they were churchmen who had attended public schools, where the modern game of football had developed. Football in public schools had been shaped by the ethic of ‘Muscular Christianity’.
Muscular Christianity taught that ‘moral character’, imbued with the traits of courage, self-control, unselfishness and teamwork, could be built through participation in team sports, such as football. It also convinced churchmen that slum dwellers could be saved from ‘evils’ of alcoholism and sloth. Accordingly, they began to move their churches out of the pulpit and onto football pitches, which they did in huge numbers in the inner city.
In his book Thank God for Football!, Peter Lupson tells us that most recreational opportunities in Victorian England were provided by churches. “In Birmingham alone,” he says, “25% of football clubs formed between 1876 and 1884 were connected with churches.”
This was a pattern that was typical of the country as a whole. In fact, some of the biggest names in the modern game originated in churches: Aston Villa, Birmingham City, Barnsley, Bolton Wanderers, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester City, Southampton, Swindon Town, Queens Park Rangers, Fulham and Tottenham Hotspur.
Aston Villa was started in 1874 by Methodists who thought that spiritual work could be more effectively undertaken on the football field. Similarly, Barnsley St Peter’s Football Club was founded by the Reverend Tiverton Preedy in 1887. Although Reverend Tiverton knew that creating a football club would ostracise him from friends in his privileged social milieu, who found the urban poor repulsive, he embraced football because it gave him a means of connecting with the urban poor and their problems. It provided him with a common language that the otherworldly upper-class church just did not have.
I meet Reverend Phil when he presides over the funeral of my friend, Roddy, a Newcastle United obsessive. We chat in the pub after and get on really well; Phil is dressed in his dog collar, me in my Newcastle shirt in honour of Rod. Phil and I get on so well that he invites me to one of his ‘coffee and chats’ in a local coffee bar. I am a bit wary of church stuff so I give it a miss, until a few months later.
I have been taking some refugees to AFC Liverpool games, but there have been lots of postponed games due to bad weather. Instead of going to the match, we have been meeting in a coffee shop in town, where we get to know each other a bit better. It’s at this point I realise the lads want to play in their own team, rather than watch non-league football.
“You want your own team?” I say, by way of clarification.
“Yes, Mr. Chris. Can you help?”
“Yes, I can. And I think I also know a man who can help us too.”
A refugee football club will need some sort of home, access to funding, and infrastructure to support it. A church would be ideal. I go on the Unitarian church website to find Phil’s telephone number, so I can warn him that I’m coming to his next coffee and chat. I have a proposition.
Reverend Phil is hugely proud of the Unitarian Church contribution to social reform, which he tells me about as we sit chatting over coffee. He introduces me to a cast of Unitarian characters.
He tells me how William Roscoe braved the wrath, abuse and physical violence orchestrated by the Liverpool shipping establishment to bring an end to the slave trade. He also talks about a Unitarian family named Rathbone. William Rathbone created the first system of district nursing in Liverpool’s disease-ridden slums. His daughter, Eleanor, was a pioneering feminist. She became leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies and was instrumental in the introduction of Family Allowance payments to women householders.
Phil also tells me that Charles Melly negotiated the acquisition of land on the south side of Liverpool, so a grandiose public park could be built for recreation. Melly wanted to improve the health and well-being of Liverpool’s working classes.
“But he didn’t create a football team,” Phil adds. “He left that to us!”
I wonder why Phil is so enthusiastic about the football team, so we chat further. He gives me a book called An Unfettered Faith: The Religion of a Unitarian. I look inside and it denounces ‘worship of the state’ (Britishness and so on) and the ‘cult of mammon’ (wealth and money).
“We were all born under the same sky,” Phil says to me. “Nobody deserves special treatment and nobody should be ignored, as if they deserve nothing at all.”
He’s not impressed by the treatment of refugees by recent UK governments. He denounces Blair, Cameron and May for creating, “a cold, heartless country” that treats refugees with outright hostility. “They exemplify a state mentality,” Phil adds. “They’re always trying to shut people out that need our help.”
He then tells me he lights a candle in his church every Sunday in the name of ‘Liberty, rationality and tolerance’. “That is what our football club can be about,” he suggests. “We can promote tolerance and understanding.”
Six months after our ‘coffee and chat’, Ullet Road Church Rebels FC is finally a reality. We have a constitution and club officials. We have become affiliated with the FA, which now officially recognises us as a football club. We have found a league to play in, a pitch to play on, a kit to play in and a shirt sponsor. We have players’ insurance. Everything!
I am club secretary, kit man and all-round dogsbody, responsible for getting the show on the road and ensuring it stays there. FA and league bureaucracy, player registrations, pitch bookings, fixture arrangements, referee confirmations, fine payments and transport, as well as ensuring the kit makes its way from the washing machine onto the players’ bodies, are all my responsibility!
Phil is our Chairman and chief fundraiser. For a club that will not charge its players subs, and has no other source of regular income, this is a key role. A typical greeting from Phil now involves a big smile and the line, “I’ve got a wedding on Saturday.”
Whenever he is approached by happy couples wanting to make one-off use of his church, Phil’s answer now includes the line, “Well, I’ve got this refugee football team, you see.” A bargain is struck; the couple get the church and the football team gets a collection.
A Saturday wedding is invariably followed by Phil greeting me at the door of the church on Sunday morning with a big smile.
“Guess how much I made yesterday?”
He’s usually pulled in over £100, which is £100 more than we would have otherwise had.